Our society no longer seems capable of educating itself. Critics cite funding shortages, poor planning, and administrative incompetence. But schools do more than educate; they indoctrinate — and often at the expense of traditional educational objectives. In this, argues John Taylor Gatto, schools are a resounding success.
Gatto ought to know. A seventh-grade teacher with twenty-six years’ experience, he has been named New York City Teacher Of The Year for three years running; this year the New York Senate named him State Teacher Of The Year. He has lectured on James Joyce’s Ulysses at Cornell University, and taught philosophy at California State College. He was once named Citizen Of The Week for coming to the aid of a woman who had been robbed. A feature film on his life and his teaching is in development. He has been praised by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo and William F. Buckley. His views defy the facile labels of conservative, moderate, and liberal; he is a political maverick, an educational renegade.
In Issue 175, we printed Gatto’s “Why Schools Don’t Educate.” What follows is an address Gatto delivered earlier this year in which he details seven lessons that will never be listed in any syllabus, though they form the core of our educational curriculum today — lessons designed to quash innovation, instill subservience, and undermine all coherence through a numbing series of arbitrary rules, disjointed facts, and days fractured by shrill bells.
The problem, Gatto insists, is that schools have traded their educational function for one of social coordination. They fulfill crucial tasks required by a way of life that emphasizes large over small, economic muscle over political consensus, hierarchy over community. Modern schooling will not be remedied through more money, or further testing, or additional constraints; rather, it requires a far-ranging shift in priorities, a radical rethinking of who we are and what we are about.
— T.L. Toma
Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do with myself, I tried my hand at teaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English, I teach school — and I win awards doing it.
While teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. I intend no irony here. These are the things I teach, these are the things you pay me to teach.
A woman named Kathy wrote to me from Dubois, Indiana the other day:
What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea they need is that what they are learning isn’t idiosyncratic — that there is some system to it all and it’s not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That’s the task — to understand, to make coherent.
Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections. I teach too much: the orbits of the planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, standardized tests, age segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world. . . .
Even in the best schools, a close examination of the curriculum reveals a lack of coherence. Fortunately, the children have no words to express the panic and anger they feel at the constant violations of natural order and logical sequence fobbed off as quality education. Educators persist in the idea that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, and natural science, rather than one genuine enthusiasm. While quality in education entails in-depth learning, confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship to each other, pretending, for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.
Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw facts into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school curricula, and the obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies concealed.
Think of all the great natural learning sequences — walking; talking; following the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; witnessing the ancient procedures of a farm, a smithy, or a shoemaker; watching your mother prepare a Thanksgiving feast. In each of these, the parts stand in perfect harmony, and each action justifies itself and illuminates the past and the future. Learning sequences at school aren’t like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes. School sequences are crazy, and will not bear close scrutiny. Yet we continue to use them, if only because few teachers would dare to impart the tools whereby the dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized. School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the thirty-nine articles of Anglicanism. Everything must be accepted.
I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to an orderly scheme. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work or because too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition has left everybody too confused to relate as a family, I teach how to accept confusion as your destiny. That’s the first lesson I teach.
The second lesson I teach is class position. I teach that you must stay in the class where you belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered by schools has increased dramatically until it is hard to see the human being beneath the weight of numbers. Numbering children is a big and profitable undertaking, though the strategy behind it is elusive. I don’t know why parents allow it without a fight.
But that’s not my business. My job is to make students like being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own — or at least endure it like good sports. If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline, the class polices itself. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.
In spite of the class blueprints that assume 99 percent of the kids are in their class to stay, I nevertheless make a public effort to exhort children to higher levels of test success, hinting at eventual transfer from the lower class as a reward. I frequently insinuate the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores and grades, even though I know employers are rightly indifferent to such things. I never lie outright but I’ve come to see that truth and teaching, as Socrates understood thousands of years ago, are incompatible. The lesson children learn is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.
The third lesson I teach is indifference. I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they should make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I demand they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It’s heartwarming; it impresses everyone, even me. When I’m at my best, I plan lessons carefully to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next workstation. They must turn on and off like light switches. Nothing important is ever finished in my class nor in any class I know. Students experience life on the installment plan.
Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work. Bells signal the secret temporality of school; their argument is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, converting every interval into a sameness just as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.
The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach you to surrender your will to the predestinated chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal because rights do not exist inside a school, not even the right of free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. As individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.
Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. I know they don’t but I allow them to deceive me because this conditions them to depend on my favors. Schoolteachers don’t recognize rights, but only privileges that can be withdrawn.
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to give meaning to our lives. This is the most important lesson. Only I— or rather, only those who pay me — can determine what you must study. The expert makes all the important choices. If I’m told that evolution is a fact instead of a theory, I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been told to think. This power to control what children think lets me separate successful students from failures. Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his. Why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are tested procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult, naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid, but that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools. I have never met a middle-class parent who actually believes his or her kid’s school is one of the bad ones. Not a single parent in twenty-six years of teaching. That testifies to what happens when mother and father have been well schooled themselves, learning the seven lessons.
Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. Our entire economy depends upon this lesson. Think of what might happen if children weren’t trained to be dependent. Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun. Restaurants, prepared food, and a host of other assorted food services would suffer if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to plant, pick, chop, and cook for them. Counselors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply of psychic invalids vanished. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would have to go, along with the clothing business and schoolteaching, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year.
Don’t be too quick to vote for radical school reform if you want to continue getting a paycheck. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do. It’s one of the biggest lessons I teach. For God’s sake, don’t rock that boat!
The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem. If you’ve ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him they’ll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. As our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.
A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to signal to within a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of good schooling, like the economy, depends on the perpetuation of dissatisfaction. Although little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records, their cumulative weight establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers. Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system, is never a factor. Through report cards, grades, and tests children learn not to trust themselves or their parents but to rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People must be told what they are worth.
The seventh lesson I teach is that you can’t hide. Children are always watched; I keep each student under constant surveillance, as do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. The time between classes lasts five minutes to inhibit promiscuous fraternization. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. I also encourage parents to file reports about their child’s waywardness; a family trained to snitch on each other is unlikely to conceal any dangerous secrets.
I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework” so that the surveillance travels into private households. Otherwise, students might find free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a devil always ready to find work for idle hands.
From constant surveillance and lack of privacy the child learns that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is central to the ideas set down in The Republic, The City of God, Institutes of the Christian Religion, New Atlantis, and Leviathan. The childless men who wrote these books discovered the same thing: children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control. Children will follow a private drummer if you can’t get them into a uniformed marching band.
The great triumph of compulsory mass-schooling under the control of a government monopoly is that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way. “The kids have to know how to read and write, don’t they?” “They have to know how to add and subtract, don’t they?” “They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job.”
A society such as ours requires a government monopoly of compulsory schooling to maintain itself. It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning we had schooling, but not too much of it and only as much as an individual wanted. And still, people learned to read, write, and do arithmetic. There are studies that show literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least on the Eastern seaboard, as close to total. Tom Paine’s Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population of 3,000,000, 20 percent of which were slaves and another 50 percent indentured servants.
Were the colonists geniuses? No. The truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on him. Millions of people teach themselves these skills; it really isn’t very hard. Pick up a fifth-grade textbook in math or rhetoric from 1850 and you’ll see that the texts were written on what today would be college level. The continuing cry for “basic skills” is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the seven lessons I’ve just taught you.
The United States has come increasingly under central control since just before the Civil War. The lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast are the product of this central control. So, too, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste. They are all products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual and family importance that central control imposes. The character of large compulsory institutions is inevitable; they want more and more until there isn’t any more to give. School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life — in fact it destroys communities by reserving the training of children to the certified experts — and thus ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life you could not hope to become a healthy human being. Look around you the next time you are near a school or an old people’s reservation, and you’ll see that he was right.
School today serves as an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control. School is an artifice that makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, contrary to the lessons of the American Revolution. In colonial days up through the period of the early Republic we had no schools to speak of — read Franklin’s Autobiography for a man who had no time to waste in school — and yet the promise of democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the dream of ancient Egypt — compulsory subordination for all.
The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony; we already have a national curriculum, locked up in these seven lessons. Such a curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis; no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its hideous effects. The current national hysteria about failing academic performance misses the point. Schools teach exactly what they are meant to teach and they do it well — how to be a good Egyptian and know your place in the pyramid.
None of this is inevitable. None of it is impossible to overthrow. We have a choice in how we bring up young people, and there is no one right way; if we broke the power of the very illusion our schooling fosters we would see that. There is no life-and-death international competition threatening our national existence, despite the continual media barrage to the contrary. In every important material respect — including energy — our nation is self-sufficient. Global economics does not speak to the public need for jobs, affordable homes, adequate schools and medical care, a clean environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life alienated from human reality. This would be clearer if we regained the ability to locate meaning where it genuinely resides — in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built. Then we would be so self-sufficient we would not even need our present material sufficiency.
How did these awful places, these “schools” come about? Casual schooling has always been with us as a mildly useful adjunct to growing up. But total schooling as we know it is a byproduct of the two “Red Scares” of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor. Then, too, old-line American families were revolted by the home cultures of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigrants after 1845 — and revolted by the Catholic religion they brought with them. A third contributing reason to jail children and call it school stemmed from the fear with which these same families regarded blacks in the wake of the Civil War.
Look again at the seven lessons of teaching: confusion, class assignment, dulled responses, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance; they all serve as good training for the permanent underclass, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. Since the 1920s, the growth of the school bureaucracy and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from it have been extended to the sons and daughters of the middle class.
Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? The professionalization of teaching preempts a function that belongs to everybody in a healthy community, and makes things that are inherently easy to learn — like reading, writing, and arithmetic — difficult by insisting they be taught through pedagogical procedures.
All the less wholesome tendencies of childhood are nourished and magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, which prevents effective personality development by its hidden curriculum. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certifed schoolteacher. No school that actually dared to teach the use of critical thinking would last very long; it would be torn to pieces. School has become the replacement for church in our secular society — and, like church, its teachings must be taken on faith.
Nobody survives The Seven-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking schools require would cost so much less than we are now spending that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen. Understand, the business I am in is first and foremost an employment agency for letting contracts. We refuse to save money by reducing the scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to help children grow up right. Institutional schooling is a business subject to neither normal accounting procedures nor the rational scalpel of competition.
We need some form of a free-market system where family schools and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts schools and farm schools all exist to compete with government education. These options exist now in miniature, as wonderful survivals of a strong and vigorous past, but they are available only to the resourceful, the courageous, the lucky, or the rich. The near impossibility of one of these better roads opening for the shattered families of the poor or for the bewildered camped on the fringes of the urban middle class insures the impending disaster of Seven-Lesson Schools unless we do something bold and decisive with the mess made by the government monopoly of schooling.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that good curricula or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and daughter’s school time. The pathologies we’ve considered come about because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families to learn about self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, service to others, courage, dignity, and love — which are among the key lessons of home life.
Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten up most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income families or single-parent ones have swallowed up most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only shallow wastelands to do it in.
The time is coming when we will be forced to learn the wisdom of nonmaterial experience; the price of survival demands that we follow a pace of life modest in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is like starting life with a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.